Life in the Casas of Cuba

Charming hosts. Comfy accommodation. Colorful decor. Fruit platters. Rich coffee. Conversations over rum. Tiny birds in wicker cages.

These are some of the things you can expect when you stay in a “casa particular” (private house), essentially Cuba’s version of Airbnb.

Hostels are not a thing yet in Cuba, and hotels can cost a pretty penny. So for the budget traveler or those seeking an authentic experience with a Cuban family, casas are the way to go. Over two weeks on the island I stayed with several warm, welcoming families. Though they were each unique, there was a clear, consistent, trending narrative I picked up on regarding their collective hopes for Cuba’s future. I will share my findings with you.

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After raining all morning, the sun came out (briefly) on our ride from Havana to Varadero. 

Where I left off in my last post, Dakota and I were bombing down the Cuban highways in a 1956 Ford Thunderbird headed to Varadero. Upon arrival at the peninsular beach town, it is dumping rain and we don’t yet have a place to stay. Thankfully our driver, Alejandro, comes through in the clutch and takes us to his friend’s house.

Here we meet Lourdes, a sweet woman who beckons us into her home without hesitation. As the rain crashes down outside, she urges us to relax on her couch and promptly serves us a few cups of delicious coffee. Her husband comes downstairs and joins us. He flicks on the television and, to my surprise, changes the channel to a basketball game, Cuba’s own professional league.

I tell him this is my favorite sport. He says he never played it but enjoys watching, adding that it has become more popular among Cubans in the past 10 years.

“It is a beautiful game”

(I heard the announcer mention that one of the players is from Guantanamo. This caught me off guard, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Gitmo was not just a naval base and prison. Indeed, Guantanamo is a region on the eastern shore of Cuba where people, and apparently basketball players, call home. I felt alleviated of a little bit of ignorance.)

Lourdes’ husband works as a repairman, mostly on appliances such as refrigerators. He used to work for the government on a standardized wage but now is somewhat of a private contractor. Even though taxes are extremely high, he tells me he makes more money this way and has more freedom in his business. Apparently some trades are slowly wading into free market territory, though the government still has a heavy hand in operations and profits.

Lourdes’ dog joins us as we watch the game. He’s less interested in talk of taxes and government and more inclined toward the receiving of belly rubs, which Dakota and I happily provide.

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Pets are one of the many charming aspects of staying in casas particulares. Cubans take great care of their animals. All of the dogs I stayed with were spayed and neutered and well trained. Moreover, seeing a stray dog in the streets, even in a big city like Havana, was extremely rare.

Birds are even more commonplace as pets; Cuba has an abundance of tropical birds to adopt. Some will even greet you as you walk in the door. In Havana, Dakota and I stayed with Barbara, a super friendly, high energy, fast talking forty-something with an entrepreneurial mindset. She owns two properties in the historic center, renting out several of her rooms to tourists. One morning she walked me through some unfinished rooms in the casa we were staying in, proudly articulating her plan to convert them into living spaces for her guests.

In one of her properties she has two pairs of birds that always perk up when we walk in.

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She named these birds Trump and Melania. Hilarious! These are the best birds folks, believe me.
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And these she named Obama and Michelle! Obama is especially animated, clearly. I suppose he has a lot to be vocal about these days.

As we sip on our rich coffee, watch basketball, and entertain the little pupper at our feet, Lourdes is in the kitchen making calls all over Varadero to find us a place to stay. Nothing comes through. so when the rain finally stops we take to the streets with Alejandro to ask around. We make sure to thank Lourdes and her husband for their efforts and for giving us refuge during the rain.

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Lourdes

We walk several blocks, stopping by any house that displays the blue anchor out front, signifying their availability as a casa particular.

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Time and again we are turned away. Varadero was filled to the brim with tourists.

After several failed attempts we finally find a casa with an available room. Naturally, we are greeted by our wonderful hosts and their equally wonderful animal companions.

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Doggo
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Birdo

Our hosts are the lovely and eclectic Guelshys and her mother, Juana.

Guelshys shows us to our room. Her eyes light up when I speak to her in Spanish. She asks me why I decided to learn the language. “To talk with interesting people like you and learn about your life”, I respond.

“Que lindoooo!”

(“How beautiful!”)

She talks at a rapid pace; our conversation sometimes gets away from me. Still, I learn her story. Her grandfather’s grandfather came over from Nigeria in the 1850’s as a slave during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Six generations later, her and her mother operate a casa particular in one of Cuba’s thriving tourist centers. They have hosted foreigners for over a decade, since the practice became legal in 1996.

Their house is delightful. Our two nights in Varadero were pleasant and relaxing thanks in large part to their hospitality.

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Our little outdoor garden. Great for relaxing with some rum after a long day at the beach.

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Guelshys, sitting by pictures of her immediate and extended family. 
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Juana. Stubborn yet sweet, she never really learned my name, just calling me “blue eyes” instead, which was more than fine with me.
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Gushing over her grandson. Eight years ago Guelshys hosted a young Italian man who became enamored with her eldest daughter. The two are now married, living in Milan with three kids. Guelshys tells me one of their sons is a child model and proudly shows me his adorable advert.

The best part about our casa in Varadero (aside from our awesome hosts of course)? We were just footsteps from one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.

Dakota and I spent two days chilling on white sand, swimming in crystal clear water, sipping on mojitos, and nibbling on delicious seafood.

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Can’t beat those Caribbean sunsets.

Sadly, after two days, we had to take our leave sooner than we would’ve liked. Our goodbyes with Guelshys and Juana were filled with hugs, cheek kisses, and promises that we would bring our children to come and see them one day.

Mine and Dakota’s goodbye the following morning erred on the side of bro-hugging instead of cheek kissing. He flew out from Havana that afternoon and I set off on my own.

I began the solo part of my trip in a city called Trinidad.

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To get there I shared a “taxi colectivo” (group taxi) with three other backpackers. This is one of the ways Cuba has accommodated for its recent influx of travelers. Buses need to be booked a day in advance and are often unreliable. Colectivos allow for more spontaneous and comfortable travel at a still very reasonable price.

We arrive in Trinidad and, once again, in typical wayward fashion, I show up in a city without a place to stay.

I decide to try my luck with a casa where another traveler in the colectivo is staying. The owner tells me her place is full, but promptly escorts me down the street to one of her neighbor’s homes, where they thankfully have a room available.

Such is the norm in Cuba’s word-of-mouth tourist economy. Due to a lack of internet, booking things in advance can be difficult. Folks on the tourist track know this and are very willing to help tourists (and consequentially help those in their circle) with whatever they need whether its booking tours, colectivos, or casas.

In Trinidad I stay with Greisy and Ismael, a young couple in their thirties who started hosting travelers a few years ago. They live with their teenage son and two dogs just outside downtown Trinidad.

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Awfully quaint, amiright?

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Their two dogs, Neuron and Niña, would often hang out on the roof as the sun was setting, and welcome me as I got home.

I spent four days in Trinidad, longer than I expected, largely in part due to Greisy and Ismael being excellent, helpful hosts.

Having grown from an original Spanish settlement, Trinidad is one of the best-preserved cities in the Caribbean from a time when the sugar trade was the main industry in the region. I spent my days wandering the cobblestone streets of the city admiring the colorful, ornate buildings and Spanish architecture.

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Plaza Mayor

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Santísima Trinidad Cathedral

Beyond perusing the beautiful cityscape and bustling markets, I enjoyed hanging out on the beach, snorkeling, hiking, live music, and exploring Trinidad’s excellent night life.

Most nights before going out for dinner I would return to my casa for an early evening rum with Greisy and Ismael. From the beginning they encouraged me to hang out with them; they have had guests that just kept to themselves before, apparently.

“We Cubans are very talkative”

I assured them this wouldn’t be a problem.

While sipping on Havana Club, I would pick their brain and they would reciprocate in turn. Much like Alejandro, who left the police force to drive his T-bird, Ismael used to be a government-employed tour guide before leaving to run his casa particular. The tourist economy is just more profitable than government work. Ismael explains that many people are making similar moves, wading into the world of private business, though such opportunities are still limited.

Opening up a casa can be very lucrative. If you get a license to rent out your property, the government will often provide modern cooking appliances, cleaning items, linens, towels, a television, etc. The government has a vested interest in keeping tourists happy, comfortable, and well fed, Ismael tells me. Every morning he prepares breakfast for me using government-supplied food rations and cooking materials. In the evening we watch Cuba’s version of MTV on a government-supplied TV (Ismael teaches me all the Cuban slang words that I don’t understand).

The price I pay for one night at a casa is about equivalent to what some government employees get paid in an entire month ($20-$30). Though taxes are high, and they have overhead to worry about, casa owners typically are in the green month-to-month. Ismael is candid about this, and tells me that him and wife have now saved up enough to pay for passports.

Soon Ismael and Greisy will be able to travel out of the country; they will be the first in their respective families to leave the island.

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Greisy and Ismael and my cliché Havana Club shirt.

They are curious about the United States and ask me a lot about Miami, specifically. Their son’s girlfriend moved there to be with her father and he really wants to visit her. He’s working at a local restaurant and is trying to save up enough money to go and see her someday.

“It is hard for Cubans to travel”

Greisy laments that getting off the island is quite difficult, both financially and logistically, but she adds that her and Ismael are blessed to have had success running their casa. She wishes the same for other Cubans, that they might have the resources to start their own profitable business as her and Ismael have.

I hope they can travel soon and share their caring, upbeat personalities with the world.

Trinidad ended up being my favorite city in Cuba. I could’ve stayed longer, but I had more to see. I set my sights on Cienfuegos.

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For my lone night in the “Pearl of the South”, I stay with Adolfy, referred by the driver of my taxi colectivo (once again the word of mouth economy at work).

Adolfy’s casa is small but comfortable with high ceilings and a nice outdoor terrace.

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Adolfy and his girlfriend.

Adolfy says he hasn’t hosted many Americans and is endlessly curious. He asks about the American economy, opportunities for hispanics, how much money one can make there, and what I think Donald Trump will do regarding relations with Cuba.

Opening up a restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami is a dream of his. I tell him the Cuban food there is incredible, and many Cubans have started up successful businesses there and elsewhere in Miami. I add that the best cup of coffee I’ve had recently was in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood at a tiny hole in the wall place called Ring the Bell, where I indulged in a deliciously sweet Cuban cafecito.

“We Cubans are natural entrepreneurs”

Hard to deny that. From the music, to the food, to the culture, Cubans have a knack for the creative. Unfortunately, due to the embargo, opportunities for Cubans to travel and work in the US are limited. Moreover, there are virtually no channels for Cubans to sell their goods around the world aside from those provided by the government.

“Cuba needs a bit more free market, and we need the American market”

These words are reminiscent of my conversation with Alejandro, who called for a “new revolution” geared toward a market economy. Such sentiments are echoed by many Cubans I met, including the host of my next city, Yamila, who lives in the center of Santa Clara, where Che Guevara led the decisive battle for the victorious revolutionaries.

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Yamila’s casa might have been the nicest I stayed in.

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My room.
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Next to her dining area, Yamila has a wall which features messages from her guests. 

Yamila was married to an Italian man for nine years. During that time, she traveled all over the world, from Europe to Asia to North Africa. She admits that she is a rare case, that most of her friends have not left the country. Yamila learned a lot in her travels and, like Adolfy, she wishes for an enhanced interchange of goods, services, and people, between Cuba and the United States.

“Better relations will be good for both countries”

I couldn’t agree with her more. Lifting the embargo was a great first step, but I hope this is just the beginning.

I loved talking with Yamila, and I enjoyed Santa Clara, though I only had a day and a night there. I’ll be documenting more about my time in Cienfuegos and Santa Clara in a later post.

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Yamila prepared the best breakfast for me. An egg, ceviche salad, sausages, cereal, fruit platter toasted bread, homemade jam, tomatoes, cucumber, iced tea, and coffee. Yum!
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Me and Yamila. I signed her wall (to the right of my head), joining a host of other travelers from all over the world. I left behind one of my favorite quotes: “The world is a book…if you don’t travel, you only read one page”. It’s my hope the Cuban government realizes this and makes it more financially viable for Cubans to get out and see the world, like Yamila has.

Staying with Cubans was perhaps the most rewarding and important thing I did while on the island. Cuba has so much to offer, and the people are eager to open up, having been shut off from much of the outside world for so long. The way they treated me as family and opened up their world to me, more than ever this convinced me that Cubans deserve the chance to share their culture and ideas with the world’s markets.

It seems to me, like so many of my new friends suggested, a bit more capitalism might just trigger a renaissance for the country. Gaining this perspective, and hearing it from Cubans themselves, wouldn’t have been possible without doing exactly what I did.

Indeed, the casas particulares of Cuba provided for a fascinating, immersive, revealing experience.

Or did they? Are the lives of those benefitting from the tourist economy representative of Cuba as whole? Am I getting the whole story?

That and more in my next installment, where we’ll go a little deeper into the current state of Cuba.

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